Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, wants to see some big changes in his party. Photo: Getty
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“The party’s been hijacked by a metropolitan elite”: Labour MP Simon Danczuk

As Ukip’s gains and Ed Miliband’s awkward Sun moment prompt questions about Labour’s blue-collar vote, the party’s MP for Rochdale opens up about the changes he’d like to see from his leader.

The MP for Rochdale Simon Danczuk is eating breakfast in Portcullis House. It looks like there’s more honey than porridge in his bowl, but the backbencher’s calls for his own party to start changing don’t stick in his throat.

Already known for his outspoken criticism of Ed Miliband’s “one-dimensional shadow cabinet” and condemnation of its sloganeering, Danczuk has occasionally riled the party’s leadership for voicing his dissatisfaction with its direction.

However, rather than dismissing him as a pesky maverick, Miliband and his circle should perhaps pay attention. Danczuk is not just a crass Ed-basher. He has a fairly nuanced idea of where his party should go.

Danczuk has concerns about appealing to working-class voters such as those in his seat, which he himself describes as a “magnet for the dispossessed”. However, he also expresses admiration for the New Labour years, Tony Blair’s leadership specifically – often remembered for its Islington set poshing-up the party.

He is jovial and straightforward, his blue eyes glinting wryly as he discloses his current political concerns to me:

“It could be argued that the party has been hijacked by a metropolitan elite,” Danczuk remarks. “Unlike under Blair, where he had a whole array of different people around him for his long tenure, from Mo Mowlam through to Hazel Blears, with [John] Prescott throughout, Alan Johnson, John Reid and [Alan] Milburn and others.

“So the party had some sort of equilibrium in terms of who is running and controlling it,” he tells me, almost wistfully. He was elected in 2010 (a candidate in the seat where Gordon Brown made his “bigoted woman” blunder) and so missed those heady years of government.

He concludes, frankly: “Now it feels to me like the party’s been hijacked by a metropolitan elite that have a particular view of the world and they are insistent upon imposing that view on others, and I think it’s eroding the support that we get.”

Danczuk’s seat, which has a high immigrant and asylum seeker population, is a clear factor in his insistence that Labour mustn’t ignore Ukip. The rightwing party has eaten into Labour’s support, including its safe seats in the North. This twist of the political landscape has seen recent urges for Labour to renew its appeal to blue-collar voters, and, as Marcus Roberts points out in this week’s New Statesman, the party has been “haemorrhaging” working-class support for over a decade.

“There’s one point that’s been said but shouldn’t be said by Labour activists and Labour people,” Danczuk insists. “It’s that ‘we shouldn’t try and out-Ukip Ukip’” he rolls his eyes.

“I think it’s an unhelpful comment and some people within the party seem to have latched on to it. I think we should come out with policies that work and serve the communities we represent. I represent a very diverse constituency.”

He then methodically takes me through a comprehensive history of immigration in Rochdale town centre, from Ukrainians and Poles during the war, to the Sixties which welcomed people from the Asian subcontinent, to closing mills creating a ghost town in the Eighties and Nineties, leaving room for asylum seekers, many from Africa, to an Irish Traveller community, to Eastern Europeans today from EU states.

“Tell me why Rochdale people wouldn’t have a view on immigration? This is the crux of the point: to say to them, ‘immigration is good; it’s good for the economy’. Well, it might be good for Islington and other places in North London, but it’s less good for places like Rochdale.

“It’s put enormous pressure on services over a number of years, in terms of health services, education. My son is one of six kids out of 30 who you would describe as ‘white-English’. The rest would be African or Polish or Irish Travellers. . . Also [the pressure] in terms of employment in the town.”

His dig at the perception of modern Labour’s leadership consisting of a gaggle of kale-caning North London liberals reminds me of something Tottenham MP David Lammy once said, when I interviewed him last year: “The Labour Party isn’t just the metropolitan liberal elite party. It can’t just be the party of Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill.”

So it’s a concern that spans Northern and London representatives.

Danczuk believes “we need to strengthen the borders”, and also “have to get people out of the country quicker when they shouldn’t be here”. He argues that immigrants shouldn’t be able to claim benefits, nor have a right to housing, for the first 12 months of being in Britain. He also suggests that dual nationality is a problem:

“We need to look around Britishness, and we have what they call dual nationality. So you can be, for argument’s sake, Pakistani and British, and I know they don’t do that in Germany and in other countries. I wonder whether we should look to limiting the ability to have dual nationality. You either want to be British or you don’t want to be.”

Danczuk’s upbringing also plays a significant part in his political thinking. Brought up in Burnley, Lancashire, he says he was, “struggling to be working-class; I’m from the under-class, really aren’t I? Living on benefits with a single mother.”

His family wasn’t political but his grandmother was “very Labour”. She introduced him to George Orwell’s works, and by the time he was 14, he’d read “All of it – from Keep the Aspidistra Flying through to Homage to Catalonia”. He used to go down to the local library and read the Guardian, which he chuckles was “a bit odd”.

He recalls his black Doc Marten boots, in fashion when he was a teenager, wearing through the rubber sole down to his sock, and being unable to replace them. His mother would make what she called “Tarzan Soup”, which was “really just vegetables boiled in water”, he recalls. “She was dressing it up as something exciting and interesting to eat. The reality was it was a very poor man’s soup.”

Such a life on benefits was “pretty miserable”, according to the MP, and he is blunt about how this translates into his politics:

“My mother did many positive things, not least teaching me good manners – but a strange thing really to prioritise, and I just wished she’d done more to work.

“She [sometimes] wouldn’t get up in the morning, and my brother, who was only 18 months older than me, had to get us up for school. So that’s a five and six or seven year old doing it, you’re regularly late for school. I wish she’d had a stronger emphasis on the work ethic. I think that would have made it a more pleasant childhood. I have a strong work ethic and I think other people should have one. My views on welfare come from that personal experience, I accept that.”

He believes the coalition “should have a system that can differentiate between those who won’t work and those who can’t work”, and laments “a culture within the [Labour] party at the moment which suggests that you should not talk about people who won’t work, or should deny that there are such people. Well, there are lots of people out there that won’t work, don’t want to work. . . We have to have a straight and honest conversation about it and I just wish Labour would do that, because they would gain much greater respect from the electorate.”

Rochdale is where Cyril Smith, the late Lib Dem MP and serial abuser of young boys, reigned for two decades. Danczuk has recently released a book revealing the dark stories of the gargantuan politician, Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith. In it are horrifying first-person testimonies from some of Smith’s victims.

He reveals, darkly, that, “there were people out to protect Smith because he was part of a network of paedophiles. I’m absolutely, wholly convinced of that. And more will come out I think in the near future to show that Smith could’ve easily been part of a Westminster network of paedophiles.”

He explains that along with some other MPs, including Tom Watson, Zac Goldsmith and Tessa Munt, he is working on “exposing other politicians [of the past] who’ve been implicated in this stuff.”

In a chilling parallel, Danczuk has also had to deal with the child grooming ring scandal in Rochdale, which similarly involved vulnerable children and a failure on the part of local authorities.

“One of the reasons Smith wasn’t prosecuted in the Sixties was that the Director of Public Prosecutions said ‘they were unreliable witnesses’. What he meant by that was that these poor, white, working-class, vulnerable boys would make unreliable witnesses.

“And you fast-forward 30 or 40 years to the Rochdale grooming scandal and initially the CPS decided not to prosecute, the police weren’t pushing it, social services didn’t really care, and that was because they were poor, white, working-class, vulnerable girls. It upsets me actually. Why haven’t we moved in that 40 years?”

Danczuk sighs that he’ll be “happy to move off” the subject of child abuse, which has so consumed his work as an MP, and is looking forward to concentrating on less upsetting topics. He loves his work on the communities and local government select committee, for which he has a “98 per cent attendance record”, he beams.

Also, he and his wife own a deli in Rochdale, called Danczuk’s Deli, and they are finding the taxes levied on small businesses tough, so he wants to do some work around business rates. He hopes to open a new shop and grow the business.

One in Islington?

He grins: “Apparently that’s where Ed buys his bread from, isn’t it? I haven’t read that article but somebody was telling me. Not from Morrisons but from some Chalk Farm deli or something. . .”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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